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Scott DeRue
Leadership professor

Scott DeRue

Scott DeRue is Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business. With Maxim Sytch, he created the student-driven Leadership Seminar discussion group.

Not a right but a choice

Q: With Laura Bush in the news with her new memoir and Michelle Obama pushing her plan to fight childhood obesity, what advice would you offer to those who find themselves in such ambiguously defined leadership roles? Can a First Lady be a leader in her own right?

Leadership is neither a right nor a position. Rather, leadership is a choice. And a responsibility. The first lady occupies an advantageous structural position in the social fabric of American life. She is on Oprah and the cover of major magazines and newspapers. Indeed, influential people around the world will happily take her phone call. But this structural position of power and recognition simply provides the first lady with an opportunity to lead and influence. It is ultimately up to her to accept responsibility as a leader and choose to influence and lead the American people toward the accomplishment of a shared, collective goal - which is the essence of leadership.

For Michelle Obama, the goal is addressing childhood obesity. For Laura Bush, it was promoting education and literacy. Each first lady has her own unique interest and cause of personal significance. But having a goal is only a small first step in leadership as the first lady.

The first lady must leverage her position to motivate a diverse set of constituents to direct their energy, passion and resources toward her cause. She must influence people over whom she has no direct authority. She must build coalitions and enable others to act on her behalf. She must be a champion of change and progress - and do so without getting caught up in the political infighting that pervades Washington.

So, yes. The first lady can and should be a leader. It is her privilege and responsibility of public service. But ultimately it is a choice she must make, and she must possess the leadership skills that will enable success. Her position will only take her so far.

By Scott DeRue

 |  May 13, 2010; 3:20 PM ET
Category:  Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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